The Home-Maker

For this year’s Persephone Reading Weekend (hosted by Claire and Verity), I decided to read one of the newest additions to my Persephone Book collection, The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, which I received from Caroline as part of the Persephone Secret Santa exchange this past year. I believe this was also among the first Persephones I ever added to my wishlist, thanks to Simon. And what a wonderful book it is!

The opening chapters offer a downright harrowing picture of suburban family life, circa the 1920s. What’s harrowing about it is not that it’s outrageously terrible—it’s that it’s so familiar. There’s a miserable housewife who can run her home perfectly but not without feeling burdened by her own high standards. There’s the father who goes every day to a job he doesn’t much like and can’t do well enough to earn the money that will make his family financially secure and help him feel emotionally secure. Each of the three children seems to suffer from one malady or another, whether it’s a nervous stomach or an unending mischievous streak. No one is happy, and it doesn’t look like anything is going to change.

But change they do. And those changes lead to a thoughtful (and sometimes amusing) examination of how adherence to traditional views of gender roles might actually be doing harm to the entire family. You see, Lester has a domestic side and gift for nurture that Evangeline lacks. The house always runs beautifully under her watch, perhaps too beautifully, but that’s because she’s such an excellent manager of details. In making sure there were no spots on the kitchen floor, Evangeline failed to take time to listen to her children. Lester, on the other hand, is brilliant at setting domestic priorities. His standards may not be as high as his wife’s, but the house is a happier one when he’s in charge. And for her part, Evangeline finds that her eye for detail is a great asset in the workplace.

Even though this book was written in 1924, the ideas within it are absolutely relevant today. Sadly, the debates about who ought to be responsible for child-rearing and housekeeping have continued, and most often, it’s the women who take on the bulk of these domestic responsibilities. What’s refreshing about Fisher’s approach is that she shows how a narrow view of gender roles is just as damaging to men as it is to women. Lester is absolutely ground down by the necessity to earn an income at a job he hates. His entire self-worth is wrapped up in his ability to be a good financial provider. Not being able to do so is positively devastating.

In the introduction to the Persephone edition, Karen Knox notes that Fisher actually characterized The Home-Maker as a book about children’s rights, rather than a book about women’s rights. This is a story of children’s right to be cared for by the best person available. Evangeline loves the children, but she lacks the patience for them. Lester is absolutely the best person to care for these children. He considers their needs at every turn, looking at each one as an individual and taking joy in his time with them. The conventional way of doing things worked against the children. It’s lucky for the Knapps that what was best for the children was the best for everyone.

Although I enjoyed this book immensely, it did leave me feeling rather sad. The Knapp family of this book was able to find a way for everyone to be happy and have their needs met. They were lucky that one parent did love earning a salary out in the workforce and another loved spending all day at home. And they were lucky that the one income was enough for maintaining a comfortable lifestyle. Many families are not nearly so lucky, even today; and Fisher’s answer may come across as a little too pie-in-the-sky. But I doubt that Fisher’s aim was to present an in-depth analysis of how families must live. She’s just opening readers’ eyes to how the nontraditional way may in fact be the best for everyone. It’s sad that, more than 85 years later, it still needs to be said.

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33 Responses to The Home-Maker

  1. nymeth says:

    I think you were right the other day – I’m going to love this. I ended up starting The Making of a Marchioness yesterday evening for PRW, but I think I’ll be reading this soon after.

  2. Thank you for the first review of Persephone Reading Weekend, Teresa! It is sad that almost a century later it still needs to be said.

    I also received this as a Persephone Secret Santa gift but I’ve been hoarding it to read over a weekend that isn’t quite as high-pressured (for me) as this one. Regrettably that didn’t seem to apply to any weekend in the lead-up either…

    Enjoy the weekend.

  3. Amanda says:

    There are very few Persephones that I’m interested in, but this is one of them. I’ve got it on my paperback swap wishlist and hope to one day get my hands on it!

    • Teresa says:

      I hope you’re able to get a copy of it, too. I’ve been surprised that I have been able to get Persephones on PBS, but I have snagged a couple there.

  4. I started out very apprehensive about this book because the beginning was such an awful situation — but I’m so glad I stuck with it because I did love it. I think this is going to be released here in the U.S. as a Persephone Classic this spring so it will be more widely available, which is so great. I wish they were all Persephone Classics!

    • Teresa says:

      The beginning made be nervous too, Karen. It was heart-wrenching and kept getting worse.

      That’s good news about it becoming a Persephone Classic. For my own collection, I like the grey ones best, but I love that the classics are easier to find.

  5. bookssnob says:

    This is one of the first Persephones I read. I remember I got it for Christmas, and I spent all Christmas afternoon reading it, not leaving the sofa until I’d finished. I found it absolutely mesmerising and brilliant in its depiction of how gender can confine us unfairly to roles that make us miserable – so ahead of its time!

    Your review is brilliant and I highly agree – it’s a shame that 70 odd years later not much has changed in our perceptions of ‘female’ and ‘male’ roles.

  6. Nicole says:

    I went back to work Wednesday after a four-day weekend and was cranky about it and feeling jealous of my husband’s stay-at-home parent status. This review reminded me that we have it pretty good. I have a job I love (librarian) and he is really good with the kids. I am going to have to track down that book and read it! Thanks for posting.

    • Teresa says:

      As much as I’d like to work at home, I’m pretty sure I’d be a terrible stay-at-home parent. I lack the patience and would end up just like Evangeline. It’s wonderful that you and your husband are able to work in the ways that suit you!

  7. Stefanie says:

    This sounds like a wonderful book and so forward-thinking too for having been written in the 1920s!

    • Teresa says:

      It did seem ahead of its time. It’s one thing to make the case that women should have the right to work, but to give men the right to stay at home? That’s radical even today!

  8. Jenny says:

    This does sound wonderful. How was the writing?

  9. rebeccareid says:

    I love this book so much. I think I may actually buy it, my first persephone to own.

    I’m hoping I can find a Persephone at the library to read this weekend (I’m giving up on my TBR dare, unofficially) but not sure they have any :(

  10. Susan in TX says:

    Oh, this one has been on my wish list ever since I first heard about Persephones. I haven’t gotten it yet, since they are a little harder to come by over here, but karenlibrarian’s comment that it may be out in the US in the spring sounds like I may remedy that soon! Thanks for the review.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m “over here” too, so I know what you mean. I have had some luck getting Persephones through Bookmooch and Paperbackswap. I stocked up, too, when I went to England on holiday last year. I hope you’re able to get a copy of this one!

  11. Jo says:

    This is the Persephone book I am reading this weekend.

    I loved your review.

  12. Emily says:

    This sounds very intriguing. I’m glad you acknowledge the possible pie-in-the-sky quality, since I think that’s the niggling doubt that’s been keeping me from adding it to my list definitively. You make a good point that absolute realism doesn’t have to be the goal, and also that these issues remain sadly relevant. Will have to check Fisher out!

    • Teresa says:

      It’s certainly a problem, and I think Fisher tries to move toward addressing it by presenting another couple that found a different way to navigate the problem. But it’s not an in-depth analysis–it’s more of a parable, really.

  13. Bina says:

    This sounds pretty great, if sad. I love that both gender roles are explored equally! :)

  14. Iris says:

    “And those changes lead to a thoughtful (and sometimes amusing) examination of how adherence to traditional views of gender roles might actually be doing harm to the entire family.”

    This made me jump up and down in my chair a little. The book sounds so perfect.

  15. Aarti says:

    It’s interesting, isn’t it, how many books written around this time dealt with the theme of the trapped feeling that can permeate suburbia? I just read the book Mrs. Ames which I think you would greatly enjoy and it is much the same- about middle-aged women in a small English village coming to terms with the fact that they aren’t happy in their lives and trying to do something about it. It’s very telling (and actually quite humorous, when you don’t think of how sad it can be) and I really enjoyed it. I highly recommend it for you!

  16. Carolyn says:

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the book, Teresa!

  17. Pingback: The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher | Imperfect Happiness

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